The long and winding road from unstable oil to super-premium frying and baking product
In 1803, you could walk from Canada to Argentina without finding a single soybean in the soil. Fast forward to present day, and the U.S. alone boasts nearly 90 million acres of soybean fields.
Soybeans have gone from complete obscurity to perennial challenger as the top U.S. crop. The industry has encountered and overcome many challenges along the way. And they’ve done so by adapting and innovating.
One of today’s challenges comes in the form of trans fats caused by partially hydrogenated oils (PHO), which improves functionality for frying and baking applications. Without an answer to the PHO process, soybean oil would continue to lose valuable market share. The solution: high oleic soybean oil, which provides the high performance sought by the food industry without the need for partial hydrogenation.
Here’s how we got from an ancient Chinese oilseed to a premium product for customers.
1804 – Soybeans Land in America
Soybeans first came to the U.S. at the turn of the 19th century. Americans adopted them as a garden crop and not much else for about 20 years.
In the late 1820s, farmers began selling soybeans to make soy sauce. Later, Civil War soldiers low on coffee rations used soybeans to brew pseudo-java. By the late 1800s, cattle ranchers learned that soybean meal made nutritious feed for their herd.
1897 – New Technology and New Markets
Americans originally didn’t see soybean oil as a viable commercial cooking option for two reasons: short shelf life and off-flavors. In France, Paul Sabatier and his pupil J.B. Senderens broke through with a solution to the first problem. They developed a process involving partially hydrogenating oils to increase stability over long periods of time.
George Washington Carver began studying soybeans for valuable human consumption in 1904. By 1910, both food and industrial oil markets started using soybean oil in their formulations.
1939 – Soybean Production Gains Ground
Before World War II, the U.S. imported 40 percent of its edible fats and oils. But as the Second World War ramped up, international supply chains shut down. Supply reductions forced domestic oil processors to look locally for feedstock. They turned to soybean oil to make up for shortages. But the off-flavors devalued their products. Purchasers bought soybean oil at basement prices.
The soybean processing industry needed a solution to rid soybean oil of its off-notes. Researchers found that deactivators, such as sorbitol, prevented trace metals from oxidizing the oil. This prevented unwanted flavors from developing.
1966 – The Golden Age of Soybean Oil
The industry now had a stable, neutrally flavored product. The improved product surpassed butter to become the world’s leading edible fat. Food manufacturers loved it for its price, stability, neutral flavor and reliable supply. This was the golden age for soybean oil, which rode the wave of consumable oil for decades.
1993 – Trans Fats Under Attack
Nutrition researchers began studying trans fats in the 1970s. Results showed that trans fats increased the risk of heart disease in humans and animals. In 1993, the Center for Science and Public Interest urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to mandate trans-fat labeling on foods.
In 2002, the Institute of Medicine recommended that people consume as little trans fat as possible. In 2003, the FDA announced that food manufacturers had to list trans fat on nutrition labels. The trans-fat labeling rule went into effect in 2006.
Although soybean oil does not contain trans fats, the partial hydrogenation process was needed to improve its performance. Partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) made up a large part of trans fats in American diets. As such, they quickly became public enemy No. 1 in the trans-fats discussion. The food industry moved away from PHOs, costing the soybean industry nearly 6 billion pounds of market share.
The soy checkoff and major seed companies saw the writing on the wall. They began investigating a soybean that could produce a stable oil without partial hydrogenation in the early 2000s. Their answer was a soybean that had higher levels of oleic acid.
2012 – The High Oleic Solution
High oleic soybean oil promoted a long shelf life with zero grams of trans fats. It also came with added benefits of outstanding frying and baking performance. Farmers first planted high oleic soybeans in 2012 and saw equally impressive performance in their fields.
In 2015, the FDA finalized a determination that PHOs were no longer generally regarded as safe (GRAS). This marked the beginning of the end for PHOs. By June 18, 2018, all food manufacturers must ensure their products no longer contain PHOs.
Soybean farmers, with high oleic soybean oil now in their toolbox, are primed to fill the PHO vacuum. With the projected level of production, farmers could provide the food industry with 9.3 billion pounds of this high-performance oil.
Through its history in America, soybean oil has overcome each challenge in its path. Farmers tended to its growth at each turn by reading market signals and adapting. Today’s farmers can continue that tradition by planting high oleic soybeans on their farms, promoting soybean success for decades to come.